Writer: Dimitra Barla
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott
Galleries are full of stories, some of them hanging on the walls, some of them stored in the vaults, but not everything that happens in the building is about the art. Behind the scenes, teams of people keep the doors open, from the directors to the curators, the café staff to the volunteer stewards, each will have a different perspective on the collection. Dimitra Barla’s play focuses on the least known role in any museum, the cloakroom attendant.
Arranged into 10 chapters, this 45-minute one-woman show arrives at the Tristan Bates Theatre for its second UK showing as part of the Camden Fringe. Inspired by The Wallace Collection on Manchester Square, Margot, played by Barla, is The Cloakroom Attendant who reveals her daily travails directly to the audience, dealing with customers, enforcing the galleries unpopular no-bag policy and making-up interesting tales about the people she meets.
Barla’s play uses a mix of narrative techniques to vary the tone across the show, using Margot like a tour guide to introduce the various aspects of the job, while dramatizing notable encounters. Arguably, in such a short piece 10 chapters is too many, with most warranting only a couple of explanatory lines. They act more like rules or tips than actual chapters, although they do provide a solid structure around which Barla can create a wider sense of the museum and its visitors.
Clearly based on the contents of The Wallace Collection and using photographic projections from its galleries, Margot meets Carl a young boy bewitched by the armoury and attending art classes, and she comes to rely on his visits for a time. There is a sense of the loneliness of the role, as people come and go but never properly engage or notice Margot which could be further explored in the context of the more glamorous and visible roles closer to the displays.
An experimental piece, Barla intersperses the story of Frankie and Paul between chapters, outlining the imagined history of their relationship told in a heightened romantic tone and little by little the growing distance between the pair is revealed. The audience is left to work out the significance of this story, although it’s clear early on that a painting must be involved. This ties into Margot’s fantasy life, linking the separation of the cloakroom to the wider operation of the gallery.
More could also be made of the show’s projection to eventually show the pieces referenced in the story, such as the unicorn armour that Carl draws. There is a sense throughout of the gallery as a place for fantasy to emerge and for individuals to weave their own narratives around the items they see, so there would be some value in projecting the original inspiration for the audience as the relevant chapter concludes.
There’s a theme about children – both in the fantasy Frankie and Paul sequence and in the encounter with Carl – which is underexplored but seems to dominate Margot’s imaginings that could be better tied together, and more could be said about the role of the uniform in removing Margot’s individuality. The Cloakroom Attendant has lots of good moments that hint at the role’s difficult and occasionally amusing relationship with the public. Fewer chapters and more extended stories would create a stronger sense of the wide variety of people a single museum attracts and could make us take a closer look at the person behind the desk next time we hand over our coat.
Runs Until 4 August 2018 | Image: Stefanos Dimitriadis